Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17
Can you imagine being someone like Abram and having God stop by on Thursday to tell you to pack your stuff up and move to New Mexico? What would your response be? What would your expectations be? Would you pack up your stuff, grab the family, and head out to a land you know nothing about. It’s an interesting story because God doesn’t seem to be a major figure in their lives and yet God arrives with commands and Abram obeys. Several generations back God was an important figure in their lives, like with the flood and Noah. But now God shows up and commands Abram to move. Many of us struggle with following the commands of the God we DO know, what would that be like if you were told by the God of our great-great-great-add some more greats – grandparents?
So Abram went. He doesn’t really say how or why. He just goes. He probably has questions but certainly has no answers. Makes me wonder what his expectations were, if in fact he had any. Think back to the last time you went somewhere new. A new restaurant, a new vacation spot, a new job. What did that feel like when you walked in with no knowledge of how things were going to play out?
Compare that to Nicodemus. Now Nicodemus is a Pharisee. He’s an expert in the Law and his group is known for strict adherence to the Law and the rituals surrounding the law. The Pharisees are extremely committed to their faith and go to great lengths to honor all the rules and traditions as an expression of that commitment. Unlike Abram, Nicodemus has all the answers and no questions. The Law and the rituals surrounding the Law provide all the answers for him. There’s no question of expectations because Nicodemus really doesn’t have any since all of his expectations have been met in his adherence to the Law and rituals surrounding the Law. Maybe a better way to phrase that is Nicodemus has only one expectation, and that is to follow the rules precisely.
Notice how it plays out between the two men. Abram no doubt has expectations but goes with the flow and follows what God has asked. In his religious certainty, Nicodemus doesn’t have much in the way of expectations or at least unmet expectations. He can relax in the certain knowledge he is doing all the right things as far as God is concerned. That religious certainty, that certain knowledge, is what trips Nicodemus up. Rather than relying on what Jesus is telling him, Nicodemus tries to fit Jesus’ description of faith into the expected box of ritual and tradition. Nothing wrong with ritual and tradition, at least not until they get in the way of our faith. That’s the point that Jesus is making with Nicodemus but it doesn’t fit his expectation of how faith works so he argues with Jesus. We don’t know what happens to Nicodemus in this reading but it is worth nothing that he reappears in the gospel of John a couple of times and ultimately helps with Jesus’ burial. You could probably make the case that Jesus’ words may not have had an immediate impact on Nicodemus but eventually they did. True for a lot of people I think, myself included.
Coming back to expectations, one of the great challenges we have as human beings is to manage our expectations. It’s an interesting little game we play. We look forward to new and interesting things while at the same time we try not to get our hopes up so that we aren’t disappointed when things don’t meet our expectations. I suspect you may have that thought about the sermons you hear in worship. You have expectations that it might be a really good one but those expectations are tempered by experience in not getting your hopes up in case it’s a real dog of a sermon. I used to do the same thing. I’d have an expectation that the sermon would come off well but experience tempered my expectations in that regard so I don’t get my hopes up in case it’s a real dog of a sermon. I’ve learned over the years exactly what this meme describes. I’d think it was a great sermon and no one liked it. Or it felt like a real dog and everyone loved it. (No idea what I’m doing meme). Basically, I’ve learned I have no idea what I’m doing!
That’s where giving up expectations works in our favor. Nicodemus had one overarching expectation that drove everything in his faith life. He was committed to his faith certainly but his adherence to specific traditions and rituals left him unable to experience a new faith in Christ. Jesus notes this rather pointedly when he tells Nicodemus, “11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” He’s telling him straight out that his reliance on tradition and ritual is blinding him to the truth that Jesus brings.
That’s the risk we run, too. When we have specific expectations of what our faith, and the faith of others looks like, then it is likely we are letting those expectations get in the way of what Jesus is telling us and what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do. Here’s one example. I’ve heard people over the years say they would only take communion from someone who is ordained. I wonder why that is? Certainly, communion needs to be prepared and served well and with reverence but I’ve always thought communion was a lot more about Jesus and a lot less about us. Putting up barriers to communion just seems like the exact thing Jesus is saying not to do.
Give some thought this Lenten season to thinking about what expectations you have when it comes to your faith life. Then ask yourself how they impact your faith. Do they strengthen your faith or do they get in the way? If it gets in the way then working on giving up those expectations and letting God do what God does.